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 Article of Interest - Court Cases

Deaf mechanic wins employment suit against United Airlines

by Thanassis Cambanis, The Boston Globe, August 8, 2002

 

Five years of anger and frustration ended Wednesday for a deaf airline mechanic when a federal judge ruled that United Airlines had papered over its discrimination with a flurry of sham reasons not to hire him.

 

In a 43-page ruling, U.S. District Judge George A. O'Toole Jr. ordered United to offer John Sprague, 40, a job and pay him at least $320,000 in damages and lost wages.

 

"It's been really hard for me to wait this long, but  right now I'm so happy," Sprague said from his home in Grafton, Mass., Wednesday. "This is a great victory for everyone who has disabilities."

 

Advocates for people who are deaf and hard of hearing hailed the decision as a significant step forward for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

 

"We litigate cases like this so that employers in the future won't discriminate against people," said Jane K. Alper, a senior attorney with the Disability Law Center in Boston. "This decision has huge significance. It proves that the ADA does work."

 

For Sprague, who has been deaf since birth, the decision means he can return to the career that has been his passion since childhood. As a teenager, he learned to fly small planes. He took his first full-time job fixing planes at Taunton Airport in 1986, and never let the fact that he can't hear most sounds get in his way.

 

He won rave reviews for his acumen as a mechanic. During the course of his lawsuit in federal court, former supervisors said Sprague used lip reading, speech and notes to communicate well with colleagues. In 1997, Sprague finally reached his goal: working for a major airline. United Airlines offered him a job as a line mechanic at Logan Airport on April 8 of that year. But within weeks, a senior executive at UAL rescinded the offer.

 

Instead, United gave Sprague a job in a maintenance shop in San Francisco, even though he had filed a discrimination suit against the company after the Logan job was withdrawn. For nearly a year, Sprague commuted every week to the West Coast, faxing pictures to his two daughters when he couldn't come home to see them. He later took a job as a mechanic for AirTran at Logan, which he held until that airline cut its staff two years ago.

 

Since then, he has worked as a freelance landscaper and carpenter while waiting for O'Toole's ruling on his discrimination lawsuit.

 

O'Toole, who heard the case in a jury-waived trial in May 2000, ruled Wednesday that United Airlines acted in "bad faith" when it argued that Sprague could not perform critical duties of a line mechanic and expressed concern for his safety on a busy airport tarmac. "United's shifting explanation of its reasons for withdrawing the job offer undermines United's credibility and suggests that the company simply did not want to employ a deaf line mechanic," O'Toole wrote.

 

United spokesman Chris Brathwaite said Wednesday that the airline was only concerned about its employees' safety, including Sprague's. "We don't think we violated any laws or policies," Brathwaite said. "At United, we were very disappointed in the outcome of the case."

 

The airline has not yet decided whether to appeal the judge's decision, he added. Sprague can hear speech but can't distinguish words. With the help of digital hearing aids, however, he can detect a significant range of sounds, including airplane warnings and irregular engine noises.

 

"His life has been on hold since the job got withdrawn in 1997," said Shannon Liss-Riordan, who represented Sprague at trial along with Alper and attorney Harold Lichten. "This has just been his life's dream." The trial before O'Toole lasted nearly a month and featured detailed testimony from other airline mechanics and hearing specialists. The evidence convinced O'Toole that Sprague, despite his disability, could conduct all the essential functions of a line mechanic.

 

"This is the quintessential ADA case," Liss-Riordan said. "United Airlines made assumptions about John Sprague because of his disability, and those assumptions were wrong." Tom Boudrow, executive director of the Massachusetts State Association for the Deaf, said companies are gradually learning not to "create invisible walls" that keep out people with disabilities.

 

"It's a shame that (Sprague) had to wait five years for the law to tell the company what is obvious: that it is blatant discrimination," Boudrow said.

 

Original URL: http://www.ican.com/news/fullpage.cfm/articleid/5961541D-FB04-4AC5-8B305749CFB356C6/cx/news.news/article.cfm

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